by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation with whom did you first discuss it, and what was their response?
Fr Anthony: I turned 45 this year and it marked my fourth year as an ordained priest. It might look like that I am a little bit late in the game but I am more of a slow learner — for the calling to the priesthood was not just a one time event, at least for me. It was a process that found a beginning during my childhood but with a narrative that continues to unfold for me and for the communities that I have been missioned to serve. The earliest recollection I had with my vocation to the priesthood was not from my memory. It was from my mother and my maternal grandmother who had constantly reminded me that ever since I was five years old I had always shared with them about my interest in becoming a priest. I have no distinct memory about the event that they were referring to but I must confess that the priesthood had always been a childhood dream that was initially supported and nurtured by the two significant women in my life. Gordon: So, which seminary did you go to prepare you for the priestly ministry?
Fr Anthony: When I was nearing the end of Year 6 (or sixth grade) at St Paul’s School in Makati City, I applied and attended the orientation workshop for the Minor Seminary in the Archdiocese of Manila. I passed and I was accepted. I informed my father about my acceptance but he suggested that I consider experiencing the life this world can offer before I make a life-long commitment towards the priesthood. Probably, it was out of respect or fear or the need to please my dad that I obliged to follow his suggestion. But in the end, I recognised the wisdom behind his counsel. So, for high school, I went to Don Bosco Makati, my father’s alma mater. While learning Biology, Mathematics, Physics, Economics, Literature, History, among others… I gained friendship with the Fathers and Brothers of Don Bosco. Fr Jose Bosch encouraged me to deepen my love for Jesus in the Eucharist, for Jesus’ mother and to strengthen my devotion to the Holy Father and the Church. Fr Bosch was also my first Confessor whom I regularly received the sacrament of reconciliation during my high school life. The Salesian priests especially Frs Jonil Lalap, Ronnie Urbano, Favie Faldas, Danny Torres and the Salesian brothers particularly Br Elmer Rodriguez exhibited joy in the life that they have embraced. I noticed in them and in the way they related with me and with my peers the quality of their commitment and how their commitment gave meaning and purpose in their lives. Clearly, for me, their words and their deeds encouraged me to take my first leap of faith towards the priesthood. After finishing high school in 1994, I entered the Don Bosco College Seminary. I lived there for four years and it is through the College Seminary that I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education. I majored in English Literature. Gordon: You mentioned just for four years. What happened after Don Bosco College Seminary?
Fr Anthony: I was the eldest in a brood of three. And, I was the first to obtain a College degree that would enable me to get a decent job in my country. I decided not to apply for the Salesian novitiate, which was the usual process after finishing the seminary studies at the College. I realised that I needed to help my family. By the way, my parents or my siblings did not ask for my help. They never made hints about the financial challenges that they were confronted with at the time. I just felt the need to help and it was out of my personal volition to discontinue the pursuit of my dream and to assist my family. Gordon: Were you able to help them?
Fr Anthony: I was employed by the leasing subsidiary of the Bank of the Philippine Islands as a specialist. However, working in a bank does not make one a millionaire but the salary was reasonable enough to meet my basic needs and provide assistance to my family. While working at the Bank, I met women and men who were highly competent at the work they were engaged in and yet were able to display their faith with great fervour marked by a passionate sense of service for others. I remember Cathy, who was then a Senior Vice President of the Bank. She was respected by her peers and her subordinates for her intelligence and capabilities yet I would, during her free times, find her serving the out-of-school-youths in the area. Cathy was not a lone wolf; I would meet and be friends with women and men who were excellent financial leaders and lived their lives marked by faith and deep concern for others. During those times too, I found myself participating in the celebration of the Eucharist in the office or at the Greenbelt Chapel on a daily basis. I volunteered in the various ministries — acolyte, lector, communications team, service-oriented groups, among others. I went out on dates too. Tinder was not there yet so my options were limited to a friend’s friend, a co-worker or a Church member. I enjoyed the conversations. I appreciated the ministries I was involved in. And, I enjoyed the work that I was doing. However, I felt that there was something more. Gordon: Did you find your more?
Fr Anthony: It was the 4th of February 2001. I was at the Business Lounge of the then Northwest Airlines in Los Angeles waiting for my flight back to the Philippines. I was in the US to attend two Conferences on Leadership. At the lounge, I was looking, staring at the breakfast buffet when a friend approached me and asked me what I want. In retrospect, I realised that she was just asking what food I prefer to take. But I responded differently. I told her that I have always wanted to become a priest. After saying those words, I just found myself crying profusely. It was a cathartic moment for me. Right then and there, I decided that I am going back to study for the priesthood Gordon: Did you go back to your old seminary?
Fr Anthony: I did. I met my former seminary Rector who suggested that I try the contemplative life. Just as an aside, I would learn at a later time that all he wanted me to do was to take a breather and contemplate on my decision since we have not seen each other for a long time. But, I took his word seriously when he told me to try the contemplative life. I surfed the net and searched for the word contemplative. Two organisations came out — the Benedictines and the Jesuits. I did not know anyone from those institutions. I just emailed both religious organisations. The Jesuits replied to my inquiry in a day or two; the Benedictines have not yet replied to me til now. I reckoned that I am not fit for the contemplative life. Gordon: When did you join the Society of Jesus? I imagined that you received your novitiate and philosophical training from them.
Fr Anthony: In November 2001, I joined the pre-novitiate program of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines. In March 2002, my application for the Novitiate was accepted by the then Jesuit Provincial, Fr Romeo Intengan. He was also the one who received my perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I will always be greatly indebted to Fr Archie, as we fondly called him, and to my novice master, Fr Ramon Bautista for my training in the Jesuit spirituality. After the novitiate, I went through training in the languages, culture and social media communication. I had two years of philosophical studies at the Jesuit University in Manila. It was also during this time that I was part of the Jesuit Vocations Promotions Team, Chaplaincy Team for the University of the Philippines, Social Action Office of the Society of Jesus and Consultant on Ignatian Spirituality for the Office of Mission, Identity and Organizational Development for the Jesuit University in Manila. It was after studies in philosophy that I was sent to do regency work in Xavier School in San Juan and ERDA Tech in Manila. Gordon: What subjects did you teach at Xavier School? And, what were your responsibilities in ERDA Tech?
Fr Anthony: During my posting in XavierSchool, I taught Economics, Political Science and Psychology. I was also made the coordinator for the Christian Life Community and the coordinator for the Debate Team. In ERDA Tech, I was asked by the Principal to re-imagine and re-articulate the curriculum for the Christian Living Program. I ended up implementing the curriculum that I re-formatted together with the two Jesuits who were also doing their regency there. Gordon: After your regency, I understand, you are supposed to focus on your theological formation. What was your favorite subject and why was it your favorite?
Fr Anthony: Yes, you are right. After regency, I was sent to the Loyola School of Theology. It was a four year track — although, I must confess, that the last year of my theology was a tough time for me. I was asked to leave the Society of Jesus because my Rector reckoned that I was not fit for the priesthood. The Jesuit Provincial then, Fr Jose Magadia, offered to pay for my theological studies — which I am grateful for. It enabled me to finish my theological studies. I have always enjoyed the courses on Faith and Revelation. It provided me with a global and synthetic view of the faith that I am professing and missioned to proclaim. Although it demanded a certain form of academic rigor it was a spiritual experience for me too. Winnowing through how the language of our belief system evolved and how it took on varied expressions to acclimatize to various contexts and cultures, it was simply fascinating. Faith is clearly God’s gift both on a personal and communal level. While doing my theological studies, I was also given other tasks in the community. I was “re-hired” to serve as Consultant for Ignatian Spirituality at the Office of Mission and Identity of the Jesuit University and as Head for the Human Resource Team for the employees of the Loyola House of Studies. Gordon: What were your responsibilities as Consultant on Ignatian Spirituality and as Head of the Human Resource Team?
Fr Anthony: It is basically pastoral ministry for the employees of the University and the Loyola House of Studies. I, together with the two teams I was connected with, organized retreats, recollections, team building activities and social events. We were in the business of building communities within their spaces of employment. Gordon: So, what happened on your third, “tough” year in Theology?
Fr Anthony: I remember submitting my application for the Diaconate ordination but my Rector told me that I do not have the vocation to the ordained ministry in the Society of Jesus. So, I left but continued with my theological studies. I have always desired to become a priest and eleven years of discernment has always led me to the conviction that God is calling me to the ministry. When I left the Society of Jesus, I was employed by a Jesuit to work for him at the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines as the Advocacy and Information Management Officer. I grabbed the opportunity to work there since it would be a good networking space for me to find a Bishop who would accept me in his diocese and continue with the preparations for the priesthood. For four years, I was sending my application to various dioceses in the Philippines. I was even accused of forum shopping which I reckon I was actually doing out of sheer misery.
The bishop would express his interest for me during the interview. But, after some time, I would be told not to make any follow-ups and just wait for their call. No one called back. I tried seventeen bishops in the Philippines but the last bishop that I talked to was kind enough to share with me that he really likes me but he was told by my former rector not to accept me. Then, I decided to apply abroad. I first submitted my application to the foreign Dioceses that had a cheap fare and direct flight from the Philippines — Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong was not accepting foreign seminarians; Singapore scheduled me for an interview. Five days before the interview, the Chancellor asked for the contact details of my former rector. The day before the interview, I was told that they were no longer interested and that they are cancelling the interview. I tried the next closer country: Australia. I emailed Bishop Bill Wright, the Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He told me to visit him in his Diocese and stay for six months. I told his Vicar General then, now Bishop Brian Mascord, if I can just stay for two weeks. I would just have to file for a vacation leave from work so that if I would not be able to meet his standards and get rejected again, I still have a job when I return to the Philippines. They agreed. I met Bishop Bill during the Holy Week of 2016. I told him my circumstance and he suggested that I give him five other names. He said that he would get in touch with my former superior but he would balance it out with the feedbacks from the other five. I submitted to him my list in August 2016. I received an email in November of that same year from Bishop Bill instructing me to move to Australia. I moved here in February 2017. He ordained me to the Diaconate in June 2018 and to the priesthood in February 2019. Gordon: What was your first assignment as priest in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle?
Fr Anthony: Immediately after my ordination to the priesthood, Bishop Bill announced to the congregation that he was missioning me as Assistant Priest to the Parishes of Singleton and Branxton-Greta. Gordon: What were your significant memories during your first assignment?
Fr Anthony: I have mostly positive memories from my first appointment. However, when you posed your question, the first thing that surfaced from the back of my head was the memory I had with these three particular kids and their family. Blake was eleven years old. Matilda, Scarlett were five year old twins. They were killed when their house was gutted by fire in the winter of 2019. I did not personally know them and they did not even go to our Church. But their parents requested that I lead the funeral services for their children. I was at a loss for words. Their grief was simply overwhelming. I felt disempowered while I journeyed through their pain and loss. I begged God to bestow on them the gift of hope as they make their way through their pain and anguish. That event left a strong imprint in my mind as a priest called to accompany people in their anxieties and dreams, in their sorrows and joys. Gordon: How long did you minister in Singleton and where are you currently assigned?
Fr Anthony: I was with the Parishes of Singleton and Branxton-Greta for almost three years. During that time too, I was tasked to serve as Administrator for the Parish of Forster-Tuncurry — for the duration of the Parish Priest’s hip operation and recuperation; it lasted for a little over a month. It was in December 2021 when I was instructed that I am moving to Medowie to serve as Rector for the Oratory of St Christopher and as Chaplain for Catherine McAuley Catholic College and San Clemente High School.
Gordon: What were the responsibilities involved as Rector and Chaplain?
Fr Anthony: As Rector, I am there to make sure that the lights of the Oratory are turned off after use While I do minister to the people who worship there during the weekend, pastoral care is primarily within the ambit of their Parish Priest. I am not their Parish Priest. As Chaplain, I provide pastoral care to the two school communities. I play soccer, basketball and have conversations with the students during their recess and lunch. I listen to the stories of the staff and the teachers. I make class visits and respond to the students questions. Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your ministry?
Fr Anthony: When I was in Singleton, it was the height of the covid lockdowns. During the first one, the Parish introduced online masses for the community — that was the most that we can do because of the health restrictions. When the restrictions started to ease, we took the liberty of making ourselves available to visit the sick and the lonely. In the two schools that I am currently assigned in, the only impact that I experienced there was the wearing of masks and the regular rapid antigen testing — but those requirements have already ceased. I think, more than the restrictions and the mask wearing, the more serious impact it left in my ministry are the confronting realities of loneliness and the animosity towards the development in medical research, particularly covid vaccination. This animosity has been negatively compounded by the proliferation of information that has not been vetted by scientific research nor tested by academic rigour. Seeing these two realities, the ministry of the priesthood, I reckon, becomes more relevant today as it becomes an avenue to provide a healing presence for the lonely and trigger moments for conversations that facilitate discernment and the genuine pursuit of truth.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and informative interview.